You know those annoying, high-maintenance girls who insist on wearing cutesy, sexy, Halloween costumes, showing up at a party in some filmy piece of tartiness and subsequently bitching about how cold they are for the rest of the night?
That would be me. Particularly last year when I decided fishnets and a tiny little red number would be the appropriate garb for jumping into the Detroit River in the middle of December.
Hey, Honest John made me do it.
You can’t call yourself a true Detroiter unless you know of John Thompson, the lovably crass and wildly politically incorrect barkeep of Honest?John’s Bar and No Grill. Despite his riotously funny warped sense of humor and crude nature, Thompson is a true philanthropist; a delightfully dirty-faced angel in disguise. He grew up hard and poor in the Cass Corridor, raised by church and state organizations after his mother, a prostitute, died of a drug overdose when he was 12.
When he first opened his bar on Field Street 14 years ago, Thompson became a devout supporter of the city and its denizens, devising a series of uniquely off-color fundraisers for charity: the Moon Drop (one big group mooning: “Bare it so the churches can share it.”), the Devil’s Night Barbecue (“Burn the ribs, not the city”) and Dipps for Tots, wherein brazen souls dress in bizarre costumes and wade into the Detroit River off Belle Isle in December; all proceeds go to buying toys for kids in Detroit public schools. All of Thompson’s fundraisers are channeled through his nonprofit, Honest?John’s Shakedown Society.
The quirky, nontraditional manner of Thompson’s fundraisers draws in many people who wouldn’t normally donate to charities. And Thompson good-naturedly bullies his patrons into participating — he’s very persuasive. He moved the bar to the Corridor two years ago, and the Dipp remains one of his most popular events.
The appointed day is blessedly warm for Dec. 5. This year, wised up by the fishnets debacle, I come prepared in a wetsuit and sneakers. The festivities begin at the bar as early as noon; the sign on the door says “Minimum donation $10 you cheap motherfuckers.” The idea is to spend the next few hours getting nice and drunk, and at 3 o’clock board the buses and head out to Belle Isle for the big moment.
Russ Vorhees has participated in every Dipp since the first one 14 years ago. This year, he and his brother Ken Vorhees are dressed in white jumpsuits imprinted with “Homeland Insecurity” on the back. Ken has traveled all the way from Spokane, Wash., for the Dipp; it’s his second time. Jumping into freakishly cold water is a Vorhees family tradition.
“We would polar bear dip as kids,” Russ says. “My dad is 88 and he shows up every year to watch.”
Russ comments on the balmy weather; apparently the very first Dipp was much less pleasant.
“It was 20 degrees outside, and the snow was blowing sideways,” he says. “It was blizzard-like conditions.”
Russ says the first year, most people showed up dressed in bathrobes and bathing suits, “but a few showed up dressed as women, and then it caught on. Now everyone tries to outdo everyone each year. It’s like the Detroit Mardi Gras.”
At this point Thompson, dressed in a nun’s habit, grabs me by the shoulders and joyously yells, “This family has been fucking with me for years!”
As Dipp time grows closer, the patrons pack the bar like anchovies in a jar. Costumes include a pleasantly round guy dressed in a Catwoman outfit, a girl in a hardhat and caution-tape bikini, a naked guy wrapped in a flag, and a priest with a penis nose. Santa just tipped a beer onto my notepad.
Mark Schrupp is an attorney for Detroit Public Schools, and he’s brought his whole family. He’s a first-time dipper.
“I’ve known John for a while, and he’s very persuasive,” Schrupp says. “I have no idea what I’m getting into.”
Three o’ clock arrives, and the masses pile onto the buses, which are packed to the bursting point. Thompson boards and offers the following:
“Nobody goes into the water until I tell you motherfuckers to — and remember, every penny that gets spent today goes to those cocksucking kids!”
The bus ride is boisterous, to say the least. Imagine if you got a bunch of Ritalin kids drunk and locked them in a room with a trampoline and candy — you get the idea.
As we edge down Grand Boulevard, somebody grabs the bus driver’s P.A. and mocks an airplane pilot:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now turning right, and if you look to your left you’ll see a lovely rehab center ...”
We pull up to the dipping site: the Belle Isle beach. There’s an embankment on the other side of the beach, and about 100 feet of shallow, absolutely freezing, filthy water in between — the goal is to make it to one side, then return. Divers are stationed in the water, one in a Santa hat, in case anyone is overwhelmed by the cold and needs medical attention. I’m already shivering.
The moment has arrived, and we all burst forth into the muddy, ice-cold disgustingness of the Detroit River. I could waste your time with a bunch of bloated, writerly adjectives in an attempt to describe the experience, but suffice it to say: It’s fucking cold, man. Halfway through, the water is about chest deep; a few crazy bastards dive under, and I see one guy doing the backstroke. We reach the embankment and pose victoriously for the cameras. Now comes the hard part — going back. By the time I’m halfway back, it feels like a million tiny needles are drilling into my legs (the wetsuit is only knee length) and my sneakers are filled with sand, pebbles and god-knows-what. The water is so damn cold it’s actually a relief to get out. The entire soggy journey was less than three minutes.
The dippers dive for towels and blankets and pose for the cameras. We’re all shaking and shuddering but wildly grinning — we’re damn proud of ourselves. Plus we have the warm and fuzzy feeling — figuratively — of knowing we’ve just done a good deed.
My knee is blue — literally blue. I’ve never turned blue before.
A dry bystander looks accusatorily at my wetsuit and says I'm cheating. I’m too cold to physically toss his ass in.
Schrupp is on the beach, dressed only in a pair of swimming trunks, shuddering and smiling.
“It was great,” he says. “I can’t feel a thing!”Sarah Klein is the associate arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]